For Veterans Day, we highlight this article, “Dissent at the War Memorial,” written by Howard Zinn for The Progressive in 2004. Asked to speak on a panel called, “War Stories,” Zinn said, “I don’t want to honor military heroism — that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war.”
This is followed by additional resources for learning and teaching about war.
As I write this, the sounds of the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington, D.C., are still in my head. I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to be on one of the panels, and the person who called to invite me said that the theme would be “War Stories.” I told him that I would come, but not to tell “war stories,” rather to talk about World War II and its meaning for us today. Fine, he said.
I made my way into a scene that looked like a movie set for a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza—huge tents pitched here and there, hawkers with souvenirs, thousands of visitors, many of them clearly World War II veterans, some in old uniforms, sporting military caps, wearing their medals. In the tent designated for my panel, I joined my fellow panelist, an African American woman who had served with the WACS (Women’s Army Corps) in World War II, and who would speak about her personal experiences in a racially segregated army.
I was introduced as a veteran of the Army Air Corps, a bombardier who had flown combat missions over Europe in the last months of the war. I wasn’t sure how this audience would react to what I had to say about the war, in that atmosphere of celebration, in the honoring of the dead, in the glow of a great victory accompanied by countless acts of military heroism.
This, roughly, is what I said: “I’m here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps—Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin—both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I’m not here to honor war itself. I’m not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I’m certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq.”
I went on: “World War II is not simply and purely a ‘good war.’ It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side—too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.
“Yes, World War II had a strong moral aspect to it—the defeat of fascism. But I deeply resent the way the so-called good war has been used to cast its glow over all the immoral wars we have fought in the past fifty years: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. I certainly don’t want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq.
“I don’t want to honor military heroism—that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war.”
The audience applauded. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. Continue reading.
More on War
Howard Zinn on War
A collection of twenty-six short writings chosen by the author. He reflects on the wars against Iraq, the war in Kosovo, the Vietnam War, World War II, and on the meaning of war generally in a world of nations that can’t seem to stop destroying each other. Read more at Seven Stories Press.
Interview: What did you learn from your experience in World War II?
HOWARD ZINN: I didn’t learn much about myself during that time, that is, while I was at war. You don’t learn much while you’re in the military except doing your job. Watch video clip.
Three Holy Wars
Video and transcript of speech given about “three wars in American history that are sacrosanct—the three wars that you cannot say anything bad about: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II.” Read and view.
Cindy Sheehan’s Speech to the Veterans for Peace Convention
Marisa Tomei reads Cindy Sheehan’s speech given on August 5, 2005, prior to her encampment on President Bush’s vacation house lawn. Watch at The People Speak on Video.com.
Resources for Teaching about War
Visit the the Zinn Education Project for resources on World War II. View lessons and resources at the Zinn Education Project on the theme of war.
Teaching about the Wars
A collection of articles (including one by Zinn) that breaks the curricular silence on the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, with hands-on lessons that shows ways to prompt students to think critically about big issues. Read more at Rethinking Schools.